Ben Sasse: I said I was #NeverTrump and I meant it

I remember grassroots conservatives celebrating when he was elected two years ago because it meant adding another Republican to the Senate who takes his principles seriously. Now here’s Sasse last night reiterating that he takes his principles seriously enough not to vote for a big-government liberal just because he’s the party’s nominee and he’ll be excoriated for it.

Oh well. The principled choice is rarely the popular one.

Here’s his Facebook statement from February insisting that if the race boils down to Trump and Hillary, he’ll “look for some third candidate – a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.” Sasse is the only member of the Senate that I know of who’s flatly refused to support Trump. There’ll be a few more, probably Lindsey Graham and maybe Mike Lee, but likely no more than a handful. And that handful won’t include anyone, like Rubio or Cruz, with a realistic chance of being nominated for president someday except, perhaps, Sasse himself. That’s what makes his #NeverTrump statement notable. Not only is it unusual for a major elected official to reject the nominee, let alone this early in the process, but Sasse has something on the line in doing it. On paper he’s a strong candidate for national office someday, at least in a conservative party. He’s taking a big risk in alienating potential voters by making this stand. That’s a real demonstration of principle.

One word about #NeverTrump and the threat it poses to Trump, since Ed and Jazz have each written about that this morning. There’s a difference to my mind between #NeverTrumpers and Republicans who simply end up not voting for Trump this fall. The first group is small and electorally insignificant, mainly driven by conservative political/media professionals. The second group is large because, well, it’s always large. Many Republicans end up choosing not to vote for the nominee each cycle, whether they stay home, cross the aisle for the Democrat, or choose a third-party option instead. Romney topped out at 93 percent of Republicans in 2012 and just 82 percent of conservatives. What happened to the rest? Theories abound, but Sean Trende’s argument about the “missing white voters” has always seemed plausible to me. Supposedly Trump’s going to turn out those missing voters en masse in November, although no polling supports the theory.

The point is, relatively few people on the right have categorically ruled out voting for Trump now, which I think is the hallmark of #NeverTrump. There’s a much larger cohort of many millions of Republicans who may strongly dislike him, are inclined to vote against him, but are going to give him a hard look anyway because Hillary is terrible. Call them #SkepticalOfTrump. Many within that group will end up deciding against him, but when they do, it won’t be because he was anathema to them on principle, as he is for Sasse. It’ll be because he didn’t seal the deal with them in the general election. I mention this distinction because I see Trumpers already grasping for scapegoats, as nationalists always do, for why he’s polling so badly against Hillary and settling on the theory that #NeverTrumpers are sinking him. Why #NeverTrumpers should be blamed for Trumpers nominating a guy whose favorable rating is in the toilet isn’t clear to me, but it’s beside the point. The point is that true #NeverTrumpers like Sasse are a rounding error in a number as large as the general electorate. Trump will have an opportunity to unite the party by winning over #SkepticalOfTrump. If he fails, that’s on him — especially if he’s going around telling reporters he doesn’t want or need every Republican to support him. If you’re going to kiss off opponents rather than try to win them over, don’t blame them later when they don’t show up.

A few Hot Air fans pinged me this morning on Twitter with this comically wrong prediction I made last year when Trump first got in the race, so go enjoy that in lieu of an exit question. If you believe a former Trump strategist, Team Trump’s own prediction of how the race would go was wildly wrong too: They hoped he’d be a protest candidate who’d crack double digits. I did get one thing right — I thought the media would give him plenty of oxygen in hopes of starving other Republicans of it, although in the end I didn’t know the half, or one-hundredth, of it — but the basics were a wild misfire. I thought his ego couldn’t stand the risk of losing primaries and that he’d drop out before having to absorb that blow; in reality, he led so consistently that he never had to face the prospect of a losing streak. It never occurred to me that the Republican base, which claims to be devoutly conservative, would even entertain the idea of voting for a center-left tabloid-sheet clown incapable of answering policy questions in greater detail than “we’re gonna build a wall and it’ll be beautiful, that I can tell you.” So yeah, I was wildly, wildly wrong.

Imagine my embarrassment.